Britain delivers overwhelming verdict - "the loudest public raspberry conceivable to GM technology" (24/9/2003)

"the GM Debate has given the loudest public raspberry conceivable to GM technology"

3 items from The Independent (London), 25 September 2003:
1.GM crops? No thanks - Britain delivers overwhelming verdict after unprecedented public opinion exercise
2.Blair the key as decision nears over commercial GM crops in Britain
3.Michael Meacher: Are we going to sacrifice a growing market for organic crops by risking contamination?
GM crops? No thanks
Britain delivers overwhelming verdict after unprecedented public opinion exercise
By Michael McCarthy, Environment Editor
The Independent, 25 September 2003
The title of the debate was "GM Nation?" But that is precisely what the British people do not want their country to be, according to the official report from the national consultation on genetically modified crops and food presented to the Government yesterday.
The unprecedented test of public opinion, which over six weeks this summer involved 675 public meetings and elicited more than 36,000 written responses, revealed a deep hostility to GM technology across the population.
Alongside fears that GM crops and food could be harmful to human health and the environment, the debate threw up widespread mistrust and suspicion of the motives of those taking decisions about GM - especially government and multi-national companies such as Monsanto.
On a whole series of questions GM-hostile majorities were enormous, with 85 per cent saying GM crops would benefit producers not ordinary people, 86 per cent saying they were unhappy with the idea of eating GM food, 91 per cent saying they thought GM had potential negative effects on the environment, and no fewer than 93 per cent of respondents saying they thought GM technology was driven more by the pursuit of profit than the public interest. Figures in support of GM were, by contrast, tiny.
Even special focus groups, deliberately selected from people who were uncommitted one way or another, to tease out the views of the "silent majority", and whose members were initially prepared to admit the technology might have benefits, opposed GM technology more the more they learnt about it, the report discloses.
The extent and the unequivocal nature of the hostility revealed by "GM Nation?" will represent a substantial political hurdle to those who wish to bring the technology to Britain as soon as possible - led by Tony Blair and his Environment Secretary, Margaret Beckett, and the giant American and European agribusiness companies such as Monsanto and Bayer.
Yesterday Mrs Beckett reaffirmed a promise that the Government would "listen" to the views the debate has highlighted and respond to them publicly, although she made no such pledge that it would take account of them in deciding its course of action.
But that was what the Government had to do, said green groups, the organic agriculture movement and others sceptical of the values of GM, who warmly welcomed the report. "The Government will ignore this report at its peril," said Pete Riley, the GM campaigner for Friends of the Earth. "The public has made it clear that it doesn't want GM food and it doesn't want GM crops. There must not be any more weasel words from the Government on this issue."
The umbrella body for the GM companies in Britain, the Agricultural Biotechnology Council, rejected the report's findings, saying that "public meetings do not equal public opinion," although the ABC's chairman, Paul Rylott, had been a member of the debate steering group and issued no dissenting opinion in the report itself.
Criticising the debate's methodology, the ABC claimed that nearly 80 per cent of the debate response forms "can be clearly identified by cluster analysis as being orchestrated by campaigning groups". The chairman of the debate, Professor Malcolm Grant, rejected the accusation.
The report is indeed likely to be widely seen as reflecting public opinion, and Mrs Beckett herself legitimised it yesterday by saying it had been "a new way of engaging the public in the policy-making process."
The embarrassment that "GM Nation?" will cause to Mr Blair and his like-minded colleagues is all the greater in that it is the third such in as many months, after two other GM reports, both commissioned by ministers and published in July. One final report is now due before the Government decides whether to give the go-ahead to the commercial growth of GM crops in Britain.
This is on the farm-scale evaluations of GM crops, a four-year trial designed to see if the deadlier weedkillers used with them cause new harm to the environment. It is due to be published on 16 October and will be the crucial document in the debate, because the decision to go ahead is taken by the EU in Brussels, and the only way the Government can countermand it is by finding new evidence of harm to human health or the environment from GM technology - such as crop trials may provide.
The general mood, the report said, "ranged from caution to doubt, through suspicion and scepticism, to hostility and rejection." Professor Grant said: "I now look forward to the Government's responding to the points raised in the debate, and taking these into account in the future formulation of policy on GM."
* 20,000 people attended 675 meetings across Britain
* The public sent in 1200 letters and e-mails
* The website received 2.9 million hits in just six weeks
* 70,000 feeback forms were downloaded; 36,557 were returned
* 93% of respondents believed GM technology was driven by profit rather than public interest
* 85% thought GM crops would benefit producers, rather than ordinary people
* 84% believed they would cause "unacceptable interference" with nature
* 54% never want to see GM crops grown in Britain
* 86% were unhappy with the idea of eating GM food
* 93% said too little was known about health effects
* 2% were happy with GM foods in all circumstances
2.Blair the key as decision nears over commercial GM crops in Britain
By Michael McCarthy Environment Editor
The Independent, 25 September 2003
The hostile result of yesterday's report on the national GM debate is yet another obstacle in the way of Tony Blair's five-year mission to import genetically modified agriculture to Britain, and the most significant one yet.
It is Mr Blair who sits at the heart of the GM project. Although other ministers are keen supporters, such as the Environment Secretary Margaret Beckett and the Science Minister Lord Sainsbury, it is the Prime Minister who is the main GM cheerleader within Government: principally, it has long been rumoured, because of a face-to-face conversation with Bill Clinton in 1998.
The US President, himself a keen supporter, is said to have converted his British fellow leader to the benefits of GM, and Mr Blair now sees it both as an important technological step forward, and a way of keeping in step with the US. EU reluctance to accept GM has infuriated the Americans in recent years.
But in signing up to GM Mr Blair did something very uncharacteristic in so canny a politician - he got out of step with the public mood.
Ever since it dawned on people five years ago that this new form of super-intensive agriculture was coming, whether they liked it or not, they have on the whole been sceptical or hostile. And now this scepticism and hostility have been rubbed in the Government's face - through a public debate it endorsed and funded itself - in a way which will be politically very hard to ignore.
But the Government may yet try to. The decision on whether GM crops can be grown commercially here is due to be taken in the next few months. It has been put on hold for four years while extensive trials have been carried out on the four GM crops currently proposed for Britain.
The trials are designed to see if the super-powerful weedkillers which the GM crops are engineered to tolerate cause more harm to farmland wildlife than the weedkillers being used at the moment. If the trials show that they do, this will be the one chance the Government has of halting GM in Britain.
This is because the basic decision to authorise the crops is taken at a European level, and only new evidence of harm to human health or the environment can then be used to overrule the Brussels authorisation. The Farm Scale Evaluations (FSEs) as they are known, to be published on 16 October, will thus be the crucial piece of evidence on which a decision not to turn Britain into a GM nation could be based.
But over the summer there have been three accompanying consultation exercises in advance of this, of which the debate is the last. And, crucially, they have all turned out to be less favourable than the Government might have wished.
On 11 July the Government's own civil servants concluded - embarrassingly for Mr Blair - that they were unable to find any compelling economic reason for introducing GM technology. The report on costs and benefits of GM by the Strategy Unit of the Cabinet Office said that the benefits would be strictly limited, not least because no one would buy the products.
On 21 July the Government's chief scientific adviser, Professor David King, launched a report on the science of GM which dismissed food safety fears arising from GM crops, but highlighted environmental concerns, noting that GM crop weedkillers threatened "serious potential harm" to farmland wildlife.
Now the GM debate has indicated in a way that cannot be ignored that the British public are overwhelmingly hostile to GM, deeply distrusting those responsible for pushing it forward - principally government and the multi-national biotech companies such as Monsanto.
The cumulative effects of these three reports mean that commercialising GM crops in Britain will be very hard for the Government to justify with any sort of convincing rational argument. There are not many voices speaking out in favour of it, and very many against.
Ignoring the GM debate, furthermore, will mean the Government is flying in the face of its own public consultation exercise.
An atmosphere has therefore been created which may induce Mr Blair and his like-minded ministers to retreat, on the grounds that the political costs of going forward may be too high - if the Farm Scale Evaluations give them the opportunity.
The Government's political will is likely to be key, because if the trials admit of more than one interpretation - as they may - ministers can either retreat behiind the argument that they are powerless in the face of an EU decision to authorise GM, or seek to derogate from that decision in the EU Council of Ministers.
The fact that the GM Debate has given the loudest public raspberry conceivable to GM technology may well push them towards the second course of action.
* GM crops were cultivated on 59 million hectares globally in 2002 with 99 per cent in four countries, the US (66 per cent), Argentina (23 per cent), Canada (6 per cent) and China (4 per cent).
* Three crops comprise 95 per cent of the land under GM cultivation: soybean (62 per cent), maize (21 per cent) and cotton (12 per cent).
* Millions of people, particularly in the United States, Canada and Argentina, have been eating food derived from animals fed on GM diets for up to seven  years and no substantial ill-effects have been reported.
* Products from the US biotech giant Monsanto account for more than 90 per cent of the total area planted with genetically engineered crops in the world in 2001.
* Of the six million farmers who grew GM crops in 2002 worldwide, more than three-quarters were small-scale and poor cotton farmers in developing countries, mainly China and South Africa.
* In 2002, Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Zambia rejected donations of GM-maize as food aid from the US through the World Food Programme despite shortages that threatened 10 million people with starvation.
* Genetic contamination of non-GM and organic crops by GM varieties in Canada has started.
* In 2000, a variety of GM maize called StarLink, designed by GM company Aventis as an animal feed and not allowed to be fed to humans, was found to have contaminated taco shells in the USA. Aventis had to buy the whole harvest in the US, at estimated cost of $100m.
* In May 2000, conventional non-GM oilseed rape imported from Canada and sold in the UK, France, Germany and Sweden by seed company Advanta was found to be contaminated with GM oilseed rape.
* Nearly 800 million people go hungry every day because they cannot grow or buy food. One in seven children born in the countries where hunger is most common die before they are five.
* Commercialisation of GM oilseed rape and maize would increase costs of non-GM and organic farmers by up to 41 per cent.
* All of the GM oilseed rape trials by GM company Aventis in farm scale evaluations had been contaminated with an unapproved GM oilseed rape variety. The Government said it was a "serious breach of regulations" but allowed the crops to be harvested.
* The four corporations that control most of the GM seed market had a combined turnover from agrochemicals and seeds of $21.6bn in 2001.
* One study showed Monsanto's GM soya had 6 per cent lower yields than non-GM soya and 11 per cent less than high-yielding non-GM soya.
* The US biotechnology industry spends $250m a year promoting GM.
* Only 1 per cent of GM research is aimed at crops used by poor farmers.
* No GM crop has been approved for sale or growing in the European Union since 1998. No GM crops are approved for cultivation in the UK.
* The biggest UK supermarkets removed GM ingredients from their own-label products in 1998 and most fast-food outlets and other food manufacturers have followed suit.
3.Michael Meacher: Are we going to sacrifice a growing market for organic crops by risking contamination?
The Independent, 25 September 2003

The main advantages alleged for genetic modification are that it increases yields, reduces herbicide use and could feed the developing world. Unfortunately, all these claims are either strongly disputed or downright wrong.

Monsanto has declared that yields increase, but the experience of Canadian farmers, who were initially favourable to GM, has proved the opposite. In India, the GM cotton harvest collapsed because of bollworm infestation. On herbicide use, powerful chemical weedkillers still often have to be used three times - first to clear the ground, then as the crop begins to grow, and third as it matures. Cross-contamination has proved a nightmare, with oilseed rape pollen particularly promiscuous. And if world hunger is to be addressed, fair trade rules for the developing countries, a more equal distribution of land, and population management measures are vastly more important than GM, whose role is insignificant.
The disadvantages of GM are that it is an untested, and potentially risky, technology. The insertion of GM DNA and lack of control over the gene's functions could cause undesired effects not immediately apparent.

That is why it is so serious that no systematic clinical testing has been carried out on the health impacts of GM foods. We do know that food allergies and food-related illnesses have doubled here and in North America over recent years, but the suspected connection with GM has not been tested. Equally, long-term impacts of GM on the environment have not been explored.
Other key disadvantages are that co-existence with organic crops is impossible. Organic oilseed rape has virtually been wiped out in Canada as a result of GM contamination. Do we want the same to happen here? We have a choice. Are we going to sacrifice organic crops, for which there is an expanding market, in order to license GM crops, for which there is no market?
People also want consumer choice. The Government says it is in favour. But people cannot choose GM-free food when the labelling rules proposed have a 0.9 per cent threshold, so you do not know if it is GM free.
Michael Meacher was the Environment minister from 1997 to 2003
British consumers should have the option of buying cheaper, more convenient food - Paul Rylott [biotech industry lobbyist] http://argument.independent.co.uk/commentators/story.jsp?story=446775

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